Fear of stigma and retribution keeps girls and women from reporting abuse to the law enforcement agencies, according to legal experts and rights activists.
Added to that is the social taboo against being vocal about abuse, which prevents victims from seeking justice to save their “honour,” the experts said.
According to Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers Association (BNWLA), 2,481 cases of violent acts against women have been reported to the authority from January to July this year.
Of them, 824 cases were of public assault, 459 domestic violence, 434 trafficking, abduction or missing persons, 251 sexual harassment and 240 rapes.
But the real numbers of such cases are significantly higher and have yet to be reported, experts believe.
Most abusers are family members
In most of the cases, abusers of women – especially young girls – turn out to be close family members, which is why a majority of such cases go unreported, said BNWLA Executive Director Advocate Salma Ali.
“You will find hundreds of cases where the rapist or molester of young girls and women are their fathers, uncles, cousins and other close male relatives. Hundreds of such incidents are happening around the country. But they are not reported for fear of being shamed,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
Experts said abuse by male relatives is particularly rampant in slum areas, where parents do not pay much attention to the whereabouts of their children.
“Parents of the victims choose not to report these cases because they fear it would hamper chances of good marriage proposals for their daughters,” Salma said.
“Our patriarchal society has a lot to do with this horrific situation,” said Dr Syed Md Saikh Imtiaz, chairman of the department of women and gender studies at Dhaka University. “Fear of taboo and the families' priority to maintain their so-called honour and social status keep the victims from coming forward and seek justice.”
“It is a matter of grief that in some families, fathers hold the family honour and dignity in higher regard than getting justice for their daughters.” Imtiaz told the Dhaka Tribune. “It is the male perspective of society. It must change if we want to curb violence against women. The victims, too, have to break their silence if they want to be safe in this patriarchal society.”
Culture of impunity
Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, blamed the culture of impunity in the country's judicial system for the rise of violence against women.
“Too many people get away with committing crime, which makes it easy for criminals to abuse women and evade justice,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
She also said the number of law enforcers dedicated to dealing with violence against women should be increased and provided with gender-sensitive training.
Dr Sadeka Halim, professor at the department of sociology in Dhaka University, said: “Girls and boys should be taught to be sympathetic towards other genders from an early age, and information about reproductive health and sex should be taught to adolescents so that they can't be lured into committing a crime.”
Lengthy legal process is discouraging
Saikh Imtiaz said the long-winded process to get legal help, faulty investigation for rape or other cases of abuse and local representatives' actions to keep the crimes under wrap are also big reasons why most victims don't pursue legal system to get justice.
Asked about the lengthy legal process to resolve such cases in court, Salma Ali said it was because the existing legal support was vastly inadequate to deal with these cases.
“There is a backlog of cases at all the courts. In addition, there are very few court benches that work with cases with violence against women, which is why the case proceedings take much longer that they should, which ultimately discourages victims to seek legal help.”
She further said these cases should be tried under speedy tribunal and criminals should be sentenced to punishment in the shortest possible time.
“Ensuring justice is the only way to make victims put their trust in the country's legal system and report the abuse they suffer,” she added.